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Fighting to Breathe – If the Air is Toxic for One, it’s Toxic for All

Posted By Karen J. Hardin, Monday, June 1, 2020

Written by: Kelly Martincin, PhD, Co-chair of OPA Communications and Technology Committee, Chair of OPA Public Sector Interests Committee


As with all CTC blog postings, this column is not intended for medical, legal, or ethical advice; it is purely for information sharing and is the experience of one psychologist attempting to be useful to her peers during a very difficult time.  While I typically do try not to disclose too much personal information in these blog postings, I feel it’s important to share that I identify as a White, cis-gender woman.  My lens of privilege cannot be ignored as I share my thoughts on race and social justice.  Similar to many others, I often feel powerless to change the horrible dynamics that sometimes feel overwhelming in society, but then I am forced to remind myself that my privilege also gives me power to help.  That is what I am hoping to achieve, at least in a small way, with this blog post today.   

Sadly, I sit at my computer again and my heart is heavy. The tragic murder of George Floyd has provided yet another example of a Black man who did not have to die, and this is becoming all too familiar.  Perhaps you saw my CTC blog a few weeks ago on social divides where I touched on many things that are examples of how we are divided as a nation.  In that article, I mentioned my sadness over the Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor killings as well as the deeply personal reactions of several of my patients, how they, as people of color, felt unsafe doing everyday things such as jogging or even sleeping in their own beds. As I prepare for work this week, I know I will again be having these conversations because we need to be having these conversations.  People of color need to be seen and heard, and not just by their psychologists.  

The recent murders sadly capture what has already been apparent for many months.  Racial disparities are present in all levels of society.  As highlighted in my previous blog posting, racial minorities are dying of COVID 19 at higher rates than Whites (see CDC website for more info) and unemployment rates are higher for minorities than for Whites (see Bureau of Labor Statistics if you’d like to examine the specific data; employment rates of Blacks was nearly double that of Whites prior to the pandemic).  Furthermore, a 2019 study from the University of Michigan, Rutgers University, and Washington University found that death from excessive use of force by police is the 6th leading cause of death for young Black men and Black men are 2.5x more likely to be killed by police than Whites.  Any one of these facts is highly disturbing, but taken together it’s absolutely breathtaking what a profound structural issue we have at every level of society.  We’re failing dramatically, and we have to do better.  

As one lone person, I sometimes feel rather helpless as to what I can possibly do to help this situation.  As a White person, it’s hard not to get stuck in feelings of guilt about how I’ve benefitted from my privilege and wonder if I’ve ever participated in systems of oppression (it’s nearly impossible to think that I haven’t in some way participated in oppression).  I’m certainly not perfect and I have a long way to go in learning about my privilege and how I can help dismantle racist ideologies in society, but here are some thoughts on ways each one of us can DO SOMETHING: 

  • Acknowledge that we are not in a post-racial society.  I try to avoid using phrases such as “I don’t see color” because color is present, it’s part of our culture, and we can celebrate our differences.  Our use of language should reflect this. 
  • I’ve been trying to take more time to learn about my privilege as a White person.  The author Peggy McIntosh was particularly helpful in providing concrete examples of how privilege is active in my life.   If you are interested, now might be a good time to also examine aspects of privilege in your life and how this might be shaping your worldview. If you feel you have a good handle on the literature available of White privilege, step into the literature on White fragility.  This literature has been helpful for me in understanding why more people don’t step forward into the difficult conversations and act on the problems with race in society today as well as understanding some of my own emotions and struggles. 
  • Be on the lookout for microaggressions, both from yourself and from others.  A microaggression is a brief comment or action (intention or unintentional) that transmits a derogatory message about a stigmatized group.  Often we react to microaggressions by thinking “Was that racist?” or “That was a little bit racist.”  If we’re wondering if a comment or action was racist, it was probably racist and we should say or do something.  There is no such thing as “a little bit racist,” it’s just plain racist, so speak up.  Similarly, if someone gives you feedback that a comment wasn’t entirely appropriate and you weren’t intending to be offensive or were joking, try not to be defensive and take the feedback to heart. Accept that we are all guilty of microaggressions and they are often unintentional.  We should all do our best to remove offensive language including jokes from our vernacular.  
  • Don’t get distracted from the bigger issues.  Like many others, I’ve been horrified by the violence that has resulted from some of the protests this past week, both in my own community and around the country.  I’ve noticed in various forums on social media and on the news that some people have used this as way to distract themselves from the bigger issue of the huge racial disparities in our nation.  While this is difficult to view and should not be encouraged, the violence of these protests is a symptom and not the disease.  If we want to stop this violence, we must work towards racial equality, plain and simple.  Don’t lose focus on what is most important – equality for all. 
  • White people, we can’t focus on our feelings right now.  One area I commonly get caught in is feelings of guilt or shame and wanting to apologize for being White.  I have to realize that this is not about me or my feelings.  We have to put the thoughts and feelings of people of color center stage at this time and make sure they are seen and heard.  It’s far more important that I focus on listening and really understanding the experiences of people of color from their standpoint and I can focus on my own reaction later.  
  • What about supporting Law Enforcement?  Isn’t that ideologically at odds with Black Lives Matter and other groups working to advance racial equality? No!  Definitely not!  We should all support law enforcement and promote healthy dialogue right now too! I’ve self-disclosed a great deal in this blog and I will share one more very important thing.  My partner is a law enforcement officer.  This past week our home has been full of important, heavy conversations about our mutual horror at the death of George Floyd and others.  I promise that you can support Black Lives Matter, believe that there must be huge changes in our nation including elimination of police brutality, while also support law enforcement officers all at the same time – I do.  Law enforcement must be included in these conversations if there is ever to be any meaningful change.  We must support those officers who serve for the right reasons and want to promote healthy change in the culture of law enforcement while also engaging those who might be ambivalent about change to educate them on the opportunities that can come with advancement of peace and equality.  

These are only a few small things that I, as one lone person, can do immediately to try to make a difference.  I encourage you to consider what you, from your unique position and perspective can do.  As psychologists, we each entered this field to make a difference.  The time is now.  Action is needed.  Most of us likely cannot make large sweeping changes on our own, but if we could all find a handful of small ways to make changes, imagine what we could all do together.  


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